Autism, Advocacy, and a Mother’s Love: 5Questions with Jen White-Johnson

Jen White-Johnson was born in Washington, DC, and is currently residing in Baltimore, MD. She is a Multidisciplinary Artist, Art Activist, Art Educator, and graduate of MICA’s Graphic Design Graduate Program. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of Visual Communications at Bowie State University. Both her personal and academic work explores pedagogical approaches for implementing social justice practice in the curriculum. Additionally, she seeks contributions to that curriculum that cultivate diversity, inclusion, and equity while exemplifying student and community engagement beyond traditional historical practices.

In October 2018 she released an advocacy photo zine entitled “KnoxRoxs,” a photo zine that highlights the beauty of neurodiversity, breaking the stigma of racialized Autism in the life of her 5-year old Autistic son, as a way to give visibility to children of color in the autism community. Since its release, the zine has received national and international recognition including features in AfroPunk, The 2019 Women’s March on Washington, The Autism Society of Baltimore, The MET Gallery in New York, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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1. Can you define Autism and what it means for your family? As parents of an Autistic child, what does daily life entail?

Our family views Autistic people as having neurodivergent differences that can incorporate various forms of neurological disabilities or differences. For Knox, his expressive language has always been and continues to be finding unique ways of communicating.

We spend a lot of time helping typical people understand that Autism is a spectrum that can’t be defined as one solid thing. Behaviors regularly associated with Autism in the media – often portrayed as ‘savants’, or lacking empathy, isn’t always accurate and not how Neurotypical people want to be seen, our zine desires to break that stigma. We want to honor the joy and the soul neurodiversity. Autistic communities of color, especially or often marginalized, their stories aren’t often honored and never told or seen in the media.

Our focus is Autism Acceptance, and we encourage self-expression – as parents of an Autistic kid We don’t suppress his creative ambitions – through each action he’s very intentional, and we get a kick out of seeing his ability to create and have fun! He is dope and teaches us new things every day: how to be better parents, a mom, a wife, a person, artist, and educator. Being Autistic shouldn’t eliminate him from the conversation of inclusiveness in art & design! His life, joy, and light must be allowed to shine every day!

2. How did you and your husband process Knox’s diagnosis? What were some of your personal challenges?

With Knox’s diagnosis, we researched that the Autism spectrum can’t be defined as one thing. It’s many things to many people – we definitely never and don’t view his diagnosis as a sickness needing to be cured but as an opportunity and beautiful identity that we want him proud to be.

3. What are some of the ways people can positively engage children and people with Autism?

  1. Encourage Self Advocacy – We believe in equipping Knox to advocate for what he wants. It’s essential for him to be able to express his desires & passions.
  2. Encourage Self Expression – We don’t suppress his creative ambitions – each action is very intentional, and I get a kick out of seeing his ability to create. –
  3. Encourage Self Confidence – We instill in Knox that every unique aspect of who he is beautiful.

4. What is “KnoxRoxs” about? Why did you choose a zine format?

As a family, we believe in the power of our differences, and we love how art can be a part of how we express those differences! We also wanted our art to inform our Creative Activism. We wanted them to converge and not keep them separate.

“KnoxRoxs” is really our visual framework that sets the tone for Autism Acceptance. 6 years of photo merging our own art and personal activism. We hope our photo documentation can increase visibility to children of color in the Autism and neurodiverse communities. We knew with this independent format, we could take a lot of ownership with the visual content and narrative. This zine is by no means a clinical journal or a ‘how to guide’ when it comes to parenting an Autistic child. It’s a simple artistic expression examining the light, soul, and love a child can bring if you accept and listen!

We made this zine for all Neurodivergent folks and families! There is heart and soul in the journey that breaks through the stigma of developmental & cognitive disabilities!

Since the release last fall I’ve been framing a Soul of Neurodiversity Manifesto.

Break the cycle of assimilation,
Break the cycle of unjust stigmas,
Infuse the narrative of soul in the lives of Neurodivergent peoples!

5. What has been the response to the zine? What does Knox think?

The response has been really positive! Knox is a happy kid! Seeing himself through the lens of acceptance has allowed him to continue to advocate for himself. We want for the zine to continue to be a tool for self-advocacy! Make sure you read his interview in the book! He talks about his favorite things! Since its release, the zine has received national and international recognition by being included in various Artbook fairs in New York, Chicago, Milano, London, and Madrid. Literary features in numerous online publications including AfroPunk and is permanently archived in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Library in New York, The Maryland Institute College of Art Decker Library, and The National Museum of Women in the Arts Museum Store in Washington, DC. One of our proudest moments was having the zine honored with a Parent advocacy award from the Autism Society of Baltimore during Autism Acceptance Month*!

*April is Autism Acceptance Month

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